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Britain plays with fire, gets burned

Leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party Nigel Farage celebrates in central London June 24 as results indicate that it looks likely the country will leave the European Union.AFP/Getty Images

Shakespeare’s Richard II understood the value of British insularity. “This precious stone set in the silver sea, which serves it in the office of a wall or as a moat defensive to a house, against the envy of less happier lands.”

Yet while it routinely hampered invasions, the English Channel is actually quite shallow, placid, and easily navigable as sea lanes go. Swimming across today is so common that it doesn’t make the back pages of the newspaper, let alone the front. Truly, the moat was always more in the mind. The British people opted out of the politics of Europe, but the scepter’d isle will always be exactly 20 miles away from the less-happy continental lands.


Anyway, there’s unhappiness aplenty on English soil. The referendum put into sharp relief the class, generational, and political chasms separating the leavers and the remainders. A nation fiercely divided against itself. Unfortunately, the public conversation about the Brexit frequently wallowed in economics and emotion and too rarely tackled the real reason for a united Europe, as well as its greatest accomplishment — peace. In other words, the arguments about the Brexit were obsessed with tactics and blind to strategy.

The concept of a European Union wasn’t just a fever dream. It is difficult to overstate the destruction of the continent in the wake of the second world war. Historian Keith Lowe described it this way: “Imagine a world without institutions. No governments. No school or universities. No access to any information. No banks. Money no longer has any worth. There are no shops, because no one has anything to sell. Law and order are virtually non-existent because there is no police force and no judiciary. Men with weapons roam the streets taking what they want. Women of all classes and ages prostitute themselves for food and protection.” But Britain was never conquered, never occupied, and still suffered rationing until — stunningly — 1954.


A condition of American aid to rebuild the smoldering ruins of Europe through the Marshall Plan was tighter economic and political cooperation. Europe took the money and started cooperating. The first step was to bind the war-making parts of the German and French economies so tightly that war could not rend them asunder. It came down to coal and steel — war was impossible without both, so six nations agreed to share. They created a supranational body to oversee the arrangement and kicked the whole process off with an announcement on May 9, 1950. That day is now called Europe Day, and the annual celebrations of it is an occasion to reflect on this history.

Decades of ever closer integration followed. Border checkpoints were removed. Work permits waived. Infrastructure projects coordinated. Britons bought homes in Spain. Poles flocked to work in London. The continent began to coordinate modern life on a vast scale — from policing, to fishing, to environmental regulations, Europeans first flipped the page and then all got on the same one.

The administration of the 500 million people in the union is a colossal undertaking. The European Union has 24 official languages, 60 regional languages, and one of the largest translation staffs on the planet. Of course, the lingua franca of the European Union is an invasive species from across the Channel: English. Two in three Europeans have at least a working knowledge of it.


Just as many people feared. Britain wasn’t a founding member of the European project, and when they joined in 1973 the French — fearing just what has happened — required that all British civil servants working at the EU be fluent in their tongue. It was a losing battle. In 1987, after years of small pilot studies, Europe launched the Erasmus scholarship program. They started by offering 3,000 students the chance to study abroad. Millions of Europeans today have received Erasmus grants or participated in their programs, which now include sports leagues and vocational training. They’ve been called the Erasmus Generation, exposed to foreign countries at a pivotal age, they met and intermarried, and acclimated enthusiastically to a concept of EU citizenship.

The statistics scream it: 40 percent of Erasmus alumni moved to a foreign country after graduation; 33 percent married someone of a different nationality; 67 percent of them were taught some of their classes in English. The United Kingdom isn’t one of the top countries sending students abroad, but it is one of the top destinations. Year by year, Generation Erasmus is moving up the middle ranks of Europe’s national governments, corporations, and universities. They’re not at the helm yet, but they’re close: Pablo Iglesias, 36, the charismatic leader of Spain’s Podemos party, was an Erasmus student in Italy in 1999.


The great intermingling has come with the scourge of inequity, however. If you are young, educated, and middle class, the European Union is for you. If you are working-class or over the age of 43, you’re probably a Euroskeptic. Home renters and owners want to stay, while Britons living in government housing want out.

Just as the welfare state was developed to vaccinate democracy from the utopian appeals of fascism and communism, the European Union badly and quickly needs to find an answer to the central complaint of the leave camp, which has a familiar ring: No taxation without representation. That was the winning argument of the Brexiteers, who went as far as to declare June 23 to be Britain’s own Independence Day.

For the United States, the Brexit is unfortunate, but not catastrophic — perhaps most tangibly felt in the short-term market panic that will surely follow Thursday’s vote. Longer term, however, American leaders should push for the European Union to move swiftly towards greater political, economic, military, cultural, and diplomatic integration. Perhaps it will finally answer Henry Kissinger’s question: If I want to call Europe, who do I dial? The world badly needs a strong Europe, as capable of resolving its own problems as it is of exporting a model of peaceful coexistence.

In the end, the Brexit was victim of EU success. The entire project was designed to use economics to prevent armed conflict. That worked. Indeed, even as a late-comer to the project, the British and their language exerted enormous and outsized influence on the continent. And even outside the European Union, the Channel isn’t getting any wider. But in the peaceful aftermath, the growing distance between the government and the governed, the many left behind, and the failure to articulate those gains proved unsustainable — at least for British voters. David Cameron should soon find himself unemployed as a result.


The United Kingdom now faces an even greater challenge — finding a leading role for itself upon the world stage. Which brings us back to Richard II: “England, bound in with the triumphant sea whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege of watery Neptune. . . That England, that was wont to conquer others, hath made a shameful conquest of itself.”

Correction: This editorial incorrectly stated the number of people in the European Union and has been updated.